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I know what spit means, and I know what rat means, but what does to spit a rat mean? I was unable to find any idiomatic meaning in the dictionaries either in the entry for rat or spit. The literal meaning just seems too absurd or random.

I came across the phrase when I was rereading The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. When Zaphod Beeblebrox tries to remember why he has carved his own initials into his brain, he says:

I don't seem to be letting myself into any of my secrets. Still I can understand that. I wouldn't trust myself further than I could spit a rat.

Will I have to attribute this weird combination of words to Zaphod Beeblebrox's eccentricity (or the author's, perhaps?) or does it have an idiomatic meaning?

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Personally I use the variant "as far as I could happily spit a rat". Not sure where I heard it. –  Wudang Apr 15 '12 at 21:56
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The original coinage seems to be from Ira Wolfert's 1943 novel Tucker's People, as...

I'd kill you just as fast as I'd spit a rat out of my mouth, you son of a bitch.

Much later in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1989), Douglas Adams picked it up as...

I wouldn't trust myself further than I could spit a rat.

I have to admit I find Adams' usage "odd". I'd expect the the imagery to focus on how quickly you want that rat out of your mouth, not how far away from your mouth you want to eject it.

Usually when talking about how "[not] far" we trust someone, the image focusses on what a short distance that is (as far as I could throw him). The reader has no special wish to imagine throwing [him] at all - he just knows if he did, it wouldn't be very far. He doesn't "want more" distance; rather he "accepts it will be less".

But on imagining a rat in his mouth, apart from the fact that primarily the reader wants it out fast, he naturally "wants more" distance, because it's repulsive. That's why it's an "odd" usage - the reader's "more distance" inclination works against the writer's "less distance" intention.

The "spit a rat" usage isn't particularly common anyway, but (possibly because Adams is more well-known than Wolfert), the "not far" sense seems more prevalent than "very fast".

I agree with Joel Brown that Adams' was probably being deliberately quirky, and knew he was mangling the original meaning (it's almost a "mixed metaphor" to me). But I doubt he expected it to be so closely scrutinised - here on ELU, or anywhere else for that matter!

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Good analysis (+1) - I'd add that it is possible that Adams was going for a deliberate subtle abuse of a relatively common idiom in order to achieve comedic effect. Zaphod Beeblebrox is, after all, a very offbeat character and it would be like him to coin slightly skewed phrases. –  Joel Brown Apr 16 '12 at 0:48
@Joel Brown: Yeah - I think that too. Adams liked poking gentle fun at existing idioms, stereotypes, etc. I can't be certain Wolfert's usage was totally original, but I reckon Adams knew of it and deliberately mangled it a bit. Partly to suit his context, partly as you say because Adams' writing in general, and Beeblebrox in particular, are pretty quirky anyway. –  FumbleFingers Apr 16 '12 at 1:01
Without context, I pictured a rotisserie rat, cooking over a campfire; not something I'd enjoy. But in context I agree that a person, however far they might want to spit the rat out of their mouths, couldn't make it go very far. Still, a very odd usage. –  TecBrat Aug 10 '12 at 12:43
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This kind of expression – an image that alludes to a relatively short distance – is often used to convey a lack of trust:

"I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him."

is probably the most common. A variation is:

"I woudn't trust him as far as I could kick him."

Yet another version:

"I wouldn't trust him as far as I could spit."

Adams is a rather original author; it's no surprise he has found a way to give a relatively common expression a unique twist. A rat seems like a good choice, too, since rats are a spittable size, and "rat" is a derogatory slang term often hung on those who can't be trusted – particularly those who have betrayed some circle.

Google search results: 
I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him: 77,000+  
I wouldn't trust him as far as I could kick him: 3,000+  
I wouldn't trust him as far as I could spit: almost 5,000  
I wouldn't trust him as far as I could spit a rat: 7  
(all searches in quotes)
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